Education | Rainy Day Fun | Family fun | Elementary | Tweens + Teens

Library Hacks: Super-Cool Things You Can Do at Puget Sound Libraries

Virtual story time, homework help, free digital downloads and more!

We all know our local library is a great place to just be. “It’s a community place; it’s a free third place. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you like until we close. You can look about and see everything flowing together: people are getting stuff done or they are not and it’s great,” says Lupine Bybee Miller, supervising librarian at The Seattle Public Library’s South Park Branch.

But are you up to date on just the amazingly wide range of useful services that your local library offers, from free music downloads to virtual story times to (even) a teen bowling league? Read on to learn about some of the coolest tools and programs at the library systems in the Greater Seattle Area. We talked to librarians at Tacoma Public Library (TPL), King County Library System (KCLS), Seattle Public Library (SPL) and Pierce County Library System (PCLS) to source these ideas. And this is just a sampling of programs; comment below to add ones we missed!

Homework help

The next time schoolwork meltdown happens, the library is your lifeline. HelpNow!, TPL’s program, offers online help for grades 3 to 12. Seattle Public Library (SPL) has online homework help from tutors in math, science, English and social studies. Tutors offer free homework help in English and Spanish for all ages. Homework Help volunteers also tutor in person at various branches of the SPL. KCLS’s Study Zone in-person tutoring program is the largest free tutoring group in the United States. KCLS also offers online homework help with its program. Pierce County Library System (PCLS) has an online homework help program as well. Libraries also offer free online databases online and free test preparation for standardized tests, too. At SPL, patrons can take more than 500 online classes in a unbelievable range of topics, from pet care to self-help courses and language learning (check for online class choices at your local library, too).

Virtual story time

Yes, a wide range of good old-fashioned story times are offered at every library system explored in this piece (including in multiple languages). But on the days when you don’t want to leave home, go online for virtual story time. Both the SPL and PCLS offers Tumblebooks, which are animated talking picture books that you can read out loud to your child or that can be read to your child with no help from you. And every day at the KCLS, children librarians add new videos to Tell Me a Story, a story-time companion that contains hundreds of videos of librarians reading books, singing songs and speaking rhymes. “We get half a million hits on this a year from all across the world," says Cecilia P. McGowan, children’s services coordinator at KCLS.

Loan forgiveness

They can’t do away with homework but they can do away with library fines. A KCLS Fresh Start program offers a one-time fee waiver for kids in grades K-12, while a program at Seattle Public libraries gives the same amnesty to kids in middle and high school. Know that these programs don’t erase lost items and their replacement fees.

Choose the next Newbery winner

KCLS librarians choose books based on Newbery Medal criteria. Children, parents and teachers read these titles and participate in mock Newbery discussions and voting, which takes place online between January 12 and February 1. FYI: the real Newbery winner is announced on February 2, 2015.

Pathway pilot project

Starting In mid-January 2015, middle and high school students in Tacoma will find a new use for their student IDs: they will be instantly converted to library cards for the Tacoma Public Library System, via the Pathway pilot project (parents can opt out of this program).


Thanks to the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, teens become skilled creators of digital media at the downtown Tacoma Library’s StoryLab. The fun and skill-building opportunities include learning to build a website, recording music and creating animation online.

Digital Kids and Science to Go

Most libraries have preschool and toddler theme kits to foster early learning, but now PCLS has Digital Kids, a spot online where parents can learn which apps support early reading skills. Another new program at PCLS offers Science to Go kits to kids ages 5 to 9. Each backpack has five themed books and a hands-on activity designed for the whole family to enjoy completing together. (The backpacks for 3–5-year-olds will be coming in spring 2015.) If you're not a PCLS member; you can still check out the great list of activities and try some at home.

Your next five books

Go online and tell an SPL librarian what kind of books you love and hate, and a real live librarian will send you the next 5 books she thinks you’d love to read. Yes, this is for people of all ages, but it’s a brilliant maneuver for kids and teens who’d rather die than talk to a librarian in person.

Free songs, movies and TV shows

Download five songs a week for free on SPL’s Freegal Music online database, which maintains more than 7 million songs from more than 28,000 labels. But free media doesn’t stop there. SPL also offers Hoopla, which offers thousands of movies, music and television titles for online viewing, from the classic kids show Arthur to the science show Nova.

Teen entertainment

Peruse the teen pages online and you’ll find gems like this: the middle and high school Teen Wii Bowling League at the Burien library (search the KCLS calendar to find the next date). KCLS has manga and anime clubs throughout the system — and Game-On, a video game program that sets up all types of games and gaming consoles in different branches for teens to play games. SPL has a teen volunteer program, too.

The librarians

Get to know the children and teen librarians at your local branch and teach your children to ask questions of these human resources. “Find one person in a branch that you connect with. Librarians are greater than Google. We can help you find the just right book. People feel like because we have computers that you can access anything online and you should be able to find everything. But that’s not true. Ask questions of us. That’s what we are here for,” says Betsy Kluck, program coordinator for The Seattle Public Library’s downtown region.

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